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MP3, hints of delay for PlayStation Portable

Reported comments from Sony exec raise doubts about launch of games handheld, which will include MP3 support.

TOKYO--Gamers will be able to download and play back MP3 files on the PlayStation Portable, a top Sony executive confirmed Thursday in an interview with Impress AV Watch.

Izumi Kawanishi, chief of Sony Computer Entertainment's network systems unit, also elaborated on aspects of the release and development cycle for the handheld gaming unit, expressing some doubts about whether the PSP will launch this year in Japan as planned.

Support for MP3 files is a reversal of a long-standing company policy, in which the vast majority of Sony devices support only the company's proprietary ATRAC3 music format. Last month, during the Tokyo Game Show, Sony Computer Entertainment included MP3s on the list of audio codecs, or compression-decompression technology, that would comply with the portable hardware, but made no further announcements.

Kawanishi said that PSP owners will be able to download MP3 files by connecting the handheld to a computer via the USB port. The device will then be recognized by the PC as a USB mass-storage device, and gamers will be able to drag and drop the MP3 files from the computer's hard drive to the PSP.

All such files will need to be stored on a Memory Stick Duo storage card, manufactured by Sony and sold separately. The Universal Media Disc (UMD) format on which PSP games will ship will not be accessible from a PC if the two systems are linked.

People will also be able to download music files in the ATRAC3plus format, as well as JPEG images, to the PSP, Kawanishi said. Browsing and playing back files on the PSP will be done with the Cross Media Bar (XMB) interface. That graphical menu was also used in Sony's PSX system, a hybrid of a DVD recorder and PlayStation 2 sold only in Japan.

A button underneath the PSP's liquid-crystal display screen should allow users to insert a library of stock sound effects while music is playing back, although the reason for the inclusion of this feature remains a mystery.

Kawanishi also mentioned that the PSP will be able to play back video files in H.264/AVC MP Level3 format. Sony Computer Entertainment is debating whether to release a tool for the PC that allows users to convert videos on their computer to the supported file format, Kawanishi said. In any case, since the PSP has no video-out jack, users will not be able to play back movies on an external screen.

In the interview, Kawanishi talked about the history of the PSP. The system's development began right before its announcement at the E3 trade show in 2003--meaning that the handheld was created in just about 18 months.

Although the system's development period has been brief, Kawanishi stated that it is still possible for it to be released this year in Japan. The likelihood of that schedule being kept depends partially on whether game publishers can have software ready for launch.

This is the first doubt about the PSP's Japanese release date that GameSpot has heard expressed by a source within Sony Computer Entertainment. It remains to be seen whether it's the first sign of a delay or is just a friendly poke at third-party software publishers.

Kawanishi also mentioned that Sony is planning to update the PSP firmware in the future, as it has done with the PSX. The Japanese company is also considering different color schemes for the PSP. As a final bit of good news for people who carry their portable systems with them everywhere, the final product will have a hard coating on the LCD that will help to protect the unit's large screen from scratches.